Tuesday, June 07, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #21: LOST IN TRANSLATION
In the late summer of 1999, I went on a trip to the mountains of Bolivia. I mentally prepared for the trip by watching Ron Fricke’s film CHRONOS almost every night for a couple of months. For those who don’t know, CHRONOS is a 45-minute IMAX feature using time-lapsed photography to contrast the pace of life in urban Western civilization with the pace of life in the natural world. I remember especially the shadows. Shadows moving across the faces of ancient Greek statues seem to change expressions of pride and accomplishment into expressions of loss and acceptance. Shadows of clouds rolling through the deserts of the American Southwest look like the ghosts of dead Indians, united with the land.
It’s almost impossible to watch the film without reflecting on one’s own mortality, with alternating feelings of invigoration and sadness… and, above all, a profound sense of awe. To me, Fricke’s other (better-known) films, KOYAANASQATSI and BARAKA, are a little more cerebral. They engage the brain, whereas CHRONOS mostly engages the senses. Breathtaking visuals and haunting music (by Craig Stearns) fully convey the impression that words are obsolete.
A few years ago, when I was preparing for a trip to India, I watched Sofia Coppola’s film LOST IN TRANSLATION with a similar devotion. Coppola obviously thinks in images and vignettes rather than words. This was apparent in her debut film, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, which forgoes the idea of having a single narrative voice in favor of a chorus of voices and a medley of characters. This style is even more apparent in her most recent film, SOMEWHERE, which plays like a long series of moving snapshots. Her films are all about the need for inspiration, but I believe LOST IN TRANSLATION works best because it’s characters are so believably “lost” and so believably inspiring.
I don’t think there’s a single frame of LOST IN TRANSLATION that doesn’t resonate for me emotionally. Bill Murray’s mid-life crisis is apparent from the first scene, where he’s in a cab, staring out in dreamy, jetlagged disbelief at the neon skyline of Tokyo…
... only to bump into a billboard of himself staring back, boldly expressionless.
When I watch it now, I think of Lance Henriksen’s comments about what he calls jetlag movies: “Your body is there, but your soul is still asleep.” The absurdity of Murray's life as a famous actor is repeated again and again: in the shower, in the elevator, and especially in the television studio where he’s making commercial for Japanese whiskey. This is the aging actor as Falstaff, a tragi-comic clown. (One could write an entire book about the actor’s evolution from SNL humor to the soulfulness of THE RAZOR’S EDGE and GROUNDHOG DAY, the situational humor of RUSHMORE and LOST IN TRANSLATION, and finally the self-aware humor of COFFEE & CIGARETTES and ZOMBIELAND.)
Scarlett Johanssen’s quarter-life crisis is equally apparent from a series of images where she’s perched, half-naked, in a window above the sprawling city of Tokyo. Another filmmaker might feel compelled to make her tell us what she’s thinking as she sits there, but that would be self-defeating. It’s better if we put the pieces together for ourselves: She’s young and aimless and lonely in a restless city of roughly 13 million people who speak another language.
In a way, she’s not so different from those ancient statues in CHRONOS. When she’s surrounded by other people (even Bill Murray, at first), she appears proud and accomplished. When she’s alone in that window sill, she’s fading. (On another self-indulgent sidenote, I have to say that I miss this vulnerable side of Scarlett Johanssen. Maybe I just haven’t been watching her best movies, but it seems to me that her recent sexbomb roles are much more depressing than her quarter-life crisis in LOST IN TRANSLATION. She's watched, instead of watching.)
The beauty of the film is that Bill Murray’s mid-life crisis and Scarlett Johanssen’s quarter-life crisis are somehow a perfect match. Even though these two people are complete strangers whose lives could not be more different, they recognize each other as fellow carriers of the "midnight disease" (to borrow Michael Chabon's term from WONDER BOYS)… and, what’s more, they are able and willing to give each other hope in the future. The first time I saw the film, I couldn’t help thinking of my favorite line from George Orwell’s 1984: “Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as understood.”
To me, that’s what LOST IN TRANSLATION is about. When you slow down your life to the pace of the natural world, the everyday sound and fury may seem futile… but it doesn't change the fact that lost souls intuitively understand each other, and in that realization there is hope. We’re not entirely alone on this overpopulated rock. Like HAROLD & MAUDE, LOST IN TRANSLATION emerges as more than a love story. It’s a tone poem about spiritual intimacy… and I’m not going to waste any more time trying to explain how or why the best scenes in the film are able to capture that intimacy (though I could easily ramble enthusiastically about a dozen or more scenes), because at a certain point words are inadequate… This is a fact that Sofia Coppola acknowledges beautifully in the final scene in the film.